As believers today, we are blessed with communion with God through the Holy Spirit and oneness with Jesus Christ who is our life. We are no longer in bondage to sin and the sin of our past has been washed away. Because of our heart connection with God, we are free to walk in grace.
None of that was true for the Old Testament believer.
Before the cross, life for those who trusted in the Lord was centered on the Law. The Law was given by God for the benefit of humanity and there was much good in it. It may be popular for us today to look on the Law as a negative, but it wasn’t that in the life of the OT saints. David loved the Law. The writer of Proverbs called the people to the Law. It was never bad . . . it was the gift of God.
Sin had entered the world and the people were separated from God. The cross would come far into the future. What were they supposed to do? God gave them the Law.
We usually think of the Law as the ritualistic code given to Moses and, of course, that is the formal version to which most of the Old Testament refers. But when Adam and Eve left the Garden they wore the skins of animals that had been sacrificed to cover their nakedness. And the next thing that happens, after their expulsion in Genesis 3, is the sacrifice of Genesis 4. Immediately a system of sacrifices was set up. It doesn’t seem to be as structured as what we find in the Law as given to Moses, but the system is there. So was the concept of sin. There were things that people should not do and consequences for doing those things. Moses’ Law simply put it all in written and legal form.
So why did God give the Law to the people? Because it was good for them! The Law did three things for the people before the cross. It convicted, covered, and called.
First, the Law protected them from the consequences of sin by pointing out the danger and setting up a system of discipline. The people of God would suffer greatly under a culture that allowed adultery, theft, or murder. Sin hurts people and God didn’t want His people to hurt each other or to suffer pain themselves because of their actions. He taught them the dangers of sin. By warning them, God again convicted them of sin. The people could see the need to live rightly and their inability to do so.
Second, the Law covered the sins the people did commit. No matter how much God warned them, they continued to sin. So He gave the sacrifices to cover their sins. It isn’t clear just how this worked, but it is clear in the Scriptures that the offerings of the people and the priests were designed to cover their sins.
My transgression is sealed up in a bag, and You cover my iniquity. Job 14:17
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Psalm 32:1
You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin. Psalm 85:2
Of course, the sacrifices also point to what we understand as the doctrine of substitution at the cross. One died for another. The lamb was killed to cover the sins of the family. The lamb was innocent and spotless. Yet the blood of the lamb was given for the people. This is such an obvious illustration of what Jesus would do for the people that we could see it even if we didn’t have many Scriptures referring to Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Finally, the Law continually called the people to the Lord. No sacrifice was done without a word of testimony to the authority and love of God. No ritual, no rule, no requirement was given apart from the promise of God. It was all designed to bring the people to Him. He would be their Savior, their only Hope. They were to trust in Him.
The Law was good. It was just never meant to bring life. It was meant simply to bring the people to the Lord. It convicted, covered, and called. Those who came to the Lord, His way, found great peace and joy. They discovered His protection and provision, just as He promised.
But the Law was not the hope of the people. The Lord Himself was their Hope. The Law didn’t wash away sin; it only covered it before the Lord. The Law could never give life. Jesus came to give life to those who trusted in Him, whether they lived before or after the cross.
The error came when the people connected their plan to God’s plan.